Church prompts concern on university campus

Evangelical church's plans for Eugene raise questions

The Associated Press/January 27, 2004

Eugene -- A new church on the University of Oregon campus is raising concern among critics, who say the church is overly aggressive in its evangelizing, targets young people on college campuses, and publicly humiliates members who fail to recruit enough newcomers or tithe 10 percent of their income to the church.

But the International Church of Christ has been embraced by some, such as UO freshman Eileen Mengis, who said she's grateful to have found a church she feels is true to its convictions.

"They actually believe and follow what they're preaching," Mengis said. "It's more personal. It's not a superficial kind of religion."

Mengis' enthusiasm isn't shared by Chad Reyes, one of three former Portland church members who visited the UO campus last week with fliers warning students of the church's intentions to recruit locally.

Most troubling, Reyes and others say, is the church's "discipler" system, in which each member is assigned a mentor who can dictate such life choices as where they live, who they live with and how often they can visit family members.

"They even said who you could or couldn't date," said Reyes, 32, an unemployed computer support technician in Tualatin. "You had to get permission: "Let my discipler talk to your discipler.' "

Banned from several college campuses back East and in Canada, the church has lost thousands of members in recent years in the wake of controversy over financial abuses and authoritarian control. The church's founder, Thomas "Kip" McKean, resigned in 2002.

But McKean is now senior minister at the Portland church and a catalyst behind the move to reach out into Eugene. In a letter last November, he told parishioners that Eugene is home to the UO "as well as nine other colleges with a combined enrollment of 30,000 students." (The Higher Education Directory lists four colleges in Eugene.)

At least 18 church members have moved to Eugene, from Portland, San Diego and elsewhere, to get the new church off the ground.

In a telephone interview with The Eugene Register-Guard, McKean acknowledged the past campus bans and said accusations of over-the-top proselytizing were justified in some but not all cases.

"Someone would say, "I'd rather not come to your church,' and if we pressed it again, then we're "harassing' - that's the buzzword," he said. "I'm sure that happened."

As for undue control over members, McKean said there's some truth to the charge but that he and other church leaders have worked hard to correct any abuses. "There definitely was a problem, but absolutely we've addressed it, " he said.

McKean said the church is "very fundamental in our following of the Bible, so we have convictions that are narrower than some groups about what it means to be a Christian. We don't apologize for our beliefs."

The International Churches of Christ a year ago claimed more than 135,000 members worldwide, according to its Web site. The movement at one point had a goal of planting a church in every nation in the world with at least one city of 100,000 or more.

UO administrators said they've not received any complaints about the church.

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